By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
March 13, 2008 - More than a year ago, the Iraqi city of Ramadi was a ruin of blasted buildings amid a population ravaged by al Qaeda terrorists and the effects of war, but the capital of Anbar province is bouncing back, a senior U.S. military commander in Iraq said today. Ramadi and its infrastructure were "completely destroyed due to the heavy fighting. Entire city blocks were nothing more than collapsed buildings, piles of rubble, ruptured water pipes, raw sewage and trash," Army Col. John Charlton, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, told Pentagon reporters during a satellite-carried news conference.
That has all changed. Ramadi is now alive and buzzing with the sounds of construction that accompany the city's rebirth and recovery, Charlton said.
"All of this has happened in 12 months, and it has happened because of the relationship we've formed with the Iraqi people, in particular the tribal leaders, and the close partnership that we've had with the Iraqi security forces," Charlton said.
Soon after deploying to Iraq from the division's base at Fort Stewart, Ga., in January 2007, Charlton and his troops joined U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers in a fierce house-to-house battle across Ramadi that defeated al Qaeda insurgents who considered that city as their capital.
"When we got here, we were very much in the lead" in the fight against al Qaeda insurgents in Ramadi, Charlton recalled. Today, the U.S.-Iraqi security relationship has "completely flipped," he said.
"The Iraqi security forces are completely out front," he explained, noting his brigade has been reorganized into an advisory unit that assists Iraqi forces.
Charlton recounted the significant security-enhancing role played by Sunni tribal leaders of Anbar province who'd had enough of al Qaeda's brutality. The sheikhs asked their young men to volunteer to help fight al Qaeda in Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province. The volunteers, known as the Sons of Iraq, secured areas that had been cleared of al Qaeda by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The Iraqi volunteers didn't ask for pay, Charlton pointed out, noting that at first they were compensated with humanitarian aid. Later on, the volunteers were paid for their security services.
Today, about 4,000 former Sons of Iraq members are certified Iraqi police officers, Charlton noted.
"That was a major (security) achievement for us," the colonel said.
The improvement in security across Anbar province compared to last year has been phenomenal, Charlton said, noting that few insurgent actions have taken place during the last several months in the province.
"Although we've been downsizing coalition presence, security (has) remained excellent, because, again, the Iraqi security forces continue to increase in their abilities," the colonel explained.
Increased security and stability have enabled Ramadi's phoenix-like rise from the ashes, Charlton said. A multitude of U.S. and Iraqi-funded reconstruction and economic projects, including the reopening of a ceramics factory that employs hundreds of Iraqis, are reviving the city's business district, he said.
The honking of hundreds of cars and trucks that now fill Ramadi's streets and roads signifies the sounds of burgeoning commerce and societal progress, the colonel said.
"There are dozens of reconstruction projects going on across Anbar," Charlton said. "We're trying to bring this province back from a war zone, back into a normal society."
Meanwhile, coalition forces and Iraqi soldiers and police are pressuring al Qaeda operatives who fled Ramadi and its environs into Anbar's desert hinterland, Charlton said.
"We've pursued al Qaeda into some very remote areas," he said.
Charlton praised his troops, noting they've "accomplished amazing things" in a tough, austere environment. The colonel and his soldiers will soon complete their 15-month Iraq deployment and return home to Fort Stewart.
"I think there's great hope for Anbar," Charlton said, noting the province's people are setting the example for progress in Iraq.
"We have witnessed Anbar transform from one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq to one of the safest," he said. "In the opinion of many people, this has been one of the most remarkable chapters of the U.S. military operations here in Iraq."